We pick up the story as I try to explain how job hunting for a fishing boat job is different from looking for a job in  say, the air-conditioned offices of an investment firm.

You know how when you’re first job-hunting and all the advice tells you to be mindful of your appearance? To be mindful of your first impression, shine your shoes, have a firm handshake, look your interviewer in the eye and convey an attitude of confidence and competence? All that sound familiar?

Yeah, so about that … if you want an unskilled job on an Alaskan fishing boat or processor, don’t do any of that. Apparently it sends the wrong message – that you might have dignity, or that you’ll read up on labor law and then get all uppity.

Having done the work, I can understand why they don’t care if you look well put-together, and I can certainly understand that they would want people who seem tough enough to survive weeks at sea in close quarters, but I think there was something else at work as well. I think they looked for desperation because desperation breeds compliance.

So … I guess I finally came across as desperate or poor enough to make the cut as one of a processing crew of 7 for a 3-week trip on a small salmon processor in Bristol Bay. This was a 170 foot boat fitted out with a loading chute, sorting area, processing tables, and a plate freezer.

Small fishing boats called purse seiners brought their catch (sockeye salmon) to our boat; we sorted it by grade, removed the heads, packed the fish into large steel pans and froze them into solid 10-fish slabs by squeezing the pans between freezing cold steel plates – hence the term “plate freezer.”

I quickly earned a reputation for diligence and was rewarded with the job of “grader.” I stood at a 3-basin sink with fish coming down a chute into the middle sink. My job was to inspect each fish and put it in either the “A” sink or the “B” sink or the “C” pile. I don’t remember there being a sink for “C” grade fish, so I think they just went into a heap off to the side. The buyer’s representative would occasionally toss a chum salmon into the influx of fish to make sure I was paying attention.

Every time a load of fish slabs was ready to be taken out of the freezer we would all be sent to the packaging area where we would form an assembly line to box them up and load the boxes onto pallets.

Doesn’t sound so bad, right? Just moving some fish around, then putting them in boxes? Kind of like what I did at UPS, but on the sea. Maybe a little more smelly and wet, but not so bad …

Oh, but did I mention how many hours we worked? Eighteen. We worked eighteen hours a day, 7 days a week. The first couple of days weren’t so bad because we were fresh, and while the work was boring the time did pass. But as the days wore on, it got harder and harder to get the job done.

Stay tuned to learn what it’s like to put in a 126-hour workweek.

Posted by lesherjennifer


  1. I’m lovin this story Jennifer. Keep it coming. Having spent my youth in Alaska, mostly in Bristol Bay, working for the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (NMFS now), you story rings a bell.

    Happy New Year

    Richard Uhlhorn



    1. Thanks Herc! There are a few more installments to the story – I am finding it fun to write about the experience – much better than living it.



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